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Image: President Trump Participates In The U.S. Coast Guard Change of Command Ceremony

Trump's lawyers try to position the president as above the law

06/04/18 08:00AM

The first sign of trouble came in December. As the investigation into the Russia scandal intensified, and credible allegations that Donald Trump obstructed justice came into focus, one of the president's attorneys argued on the record that Trump "cannot obstruct justice."

A day later, the same lawyer, John Dowd, added that because the president is the nation's "chief law enforcement officer," it's simply not possible for him to "obstruct himself."

What we didn't know until 48 hours ago was that this argument wasn't simply floated via the media as part of some kind of public-relations campaign. The New York Times  reported on a 20-page memo Trump's lawyers sent in January to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in which the president's defense team adopted a stunning legal posture:

President Trump's lawyers have for months quietly waged a campaign to keep the special counsel from trying to force him to answer questions in the investigation into whether he obstructed justice, asserting that he cannot be compelled to testify and arguing in a confidential letter that he could not possibly have committed obstruction because he has unfettered authority over all federal investigations.

In a brash assertion of presidential power, the 20-page letter -- sent to the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and obtained by The New York Times -- contends that the president cannot illegally obstruct any aspect of the investigation into Russia's election meddling because the Constitution empowers him to, "if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon."

The Times published the full document online here. It argues, among other things, "[T]he President not only has unfettered statutory and Constitutional authority to terminate the FBI Director, he also has Constitutional authority to direct the Justice Department to open or close an investigation, and, of course, the power to pardon any person before, during, or after an investigation and/or conviction. Put simply, the Constitution leaves no question that the President has exclusive authority over the ultimate conduct and disposition of all criminal investigations and over those executive branch officials responsible for conducting those investigations."

Americans have probably never seen a memo quite like this one. In it, Trump's lawyers make the case that he not only can't obstruct justice, but also that he can't be subpoenaed. In their vision, the president is effectively above the law, capable of dictating the terms, scope, and duration of any federal investigation, for any reason and at any time.

In Trump World's vision, the legal system is the president's system. Mueller may be leading an investigation, but it's actually Trump's investigation.

More than two centuries after Louis XIV is rumored to have said, "L'Etat, c'est moi" ("I am the state"), an American president's lawyers articulated a similar principle, in writing, for a special counsel who considers that president to be a subject of an ongoing criminal investigation.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers the convocation at the Vines Center on the campus of Liberty University Jan. 18, 2016 in Lynchburg, Va. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

This Week in God, 6.2.18

06/02/18 07:55AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at an unexpected project from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, which Donald Trump is probably going to like.

Liberty's political relevance has grown considerably in recent years, and the Republican president has taken several steps to cultivate a close relationship with the evangelical school in Virginia, including delivering its commencement address last year. Jerry Falwell Jr., meanwhile, has remained one of Trump's most steadfast supporters.

But the Washington Post  reported this week that Liberty's affection for Trump is poised to reach a whole new level.

The question either infuriates or intrigues tens of millions of Americans: Did God play a role in the victory of Donald Trump? The debate will soon be presented in movie theaters across the country, as evangelical megaschool Liberty University is making and releasing a film called "The Trump Prophecy."

The film, which will be released in 1,200 theaters this fall, is Liberty's largest production to date, and it pairs the university with an independent Christian filmmaker who raised $1 million for the project -- a sum its director says could double with postproduction and distribution costs.

A Vox report added that the film, which argues that Trump's presidency was divinely foretold, "tells the story of Florida firefighter Mark Taylor, who says that God told him that Donald Trump would become president."

Not everyone associated with the university is pleased. Just as a group of students and alumni denounced Liberty's pro-Trump posture ahead of the 2016 election, some Liberty alum have signed a petition calling on the school to cancel the project, describing it as "heretical."

Assuming those efforts are unsuccessful, "The Trump Prophecy" will reportedly be released later this year. I'd put the odds of Trump tweeting about it at roughly 100%.

Also from the God Machine this week:

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Friday's Mini-Report, 6.1.18

06/01/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Can we have another chat about Trump's unsecured phones? "A federal study found signs that surveillance devices for intercepting cellphone calls and texts were operating near the White House and other sensitive locations in the Washington area last year."

* He really shouldn't have done this: "With a Friday morning tweet spotlighting confidential job numbers, President Donald Trump again broke with long-standing protocol designed to prevent investors from getting an early indication of the latest round of monthly figures."

* Spain: "Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain lost a no-confidence vote on Friday, ousting one of Europe's longest-serving leaders from office over a major corruption scandal within his conservative party."

* Richard Gerson: "A close friend of Jared Kushner has come under scrutiny by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for his proximity to some key meetings between Trump associates and foreign officials, according to five people familiar with the matter."

* An update for those keeping track of Scott Pruitt's many controversies: "EPA's Pruitt spent $1,560 on 12 customized fountain pens from Washington jewelry store."

* A worthwhile policy: "Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday signed into law a bill that will require all New Jersey residents to have health coverage or pay a penalty, making the state the second in the country to enact an individual health insurance mandate."

* Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D), meanwhile, yesterday hosted a ceremony where he "signed a bill banning bump stocks into law."

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Image: US-NKOREA-DIPLOMACY-NUCLEAR

Trump un-cancels summit with North Korea's Kim Jong-un

06/01/18 04:39PM

It was just eight days ago that Donald Trump, citing "tremendous anger and open hostility" from Pyongyang, canceled his summit with North Korea's Kim Jong-un, originally scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.

The American president did, however, leave the door ajar. In his letter to the dictator, Trump added, "If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write."

It quickly became obvious that the Republican still hoped to rescue the meeting, and today, Trump announced that the summit has been un-canceled.

President Donald Trump announced the decision after a historic and lengthy Oval Office meeting Friday with Kim Yong Chol, who is the top deputy to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

"We'll be meeting on June 12th in Singapore," Trump told reporters at the White House. But he also said that it would be hard to reach a deal from a single summit in less than two weeks.

"I don't see that happening," he said. "...It will be a beginning. I've never said it happens in one meeting."

Trump went on to say that Kim Jong-un had sent him a letter, which the Republican described as "very nice," though he also acknowledged that he hadn't yet read it. (The White House later claimed that the president has, in fact, read the correspondence.)

As for the prospect of the June 12 summit being "a beginning," there's nothing necessarily wrong with a gradual process. That said, it's something of a mystery what the White House hopes to accomplish when the two leaders meet in 12 days. Kim will certainly get what he wants -- the international legitimacy that comes with a bilateral meeting alongside the ostensible Leader of the Free World -- but Trump apparently sees this as a "getting-to-know-you-plus meeting" that will set the stage for future talks.

It suggests the Singapore summit, on a substantive level, won't amount to much beyond a photo-op long sought by North Korea, though it may eventually lead to something more tangible.

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Image: Energy Secretary Rick Perry Delivers Remarks At Energy Policy Summit In DC

Trump administration weighs new plan to prop up coal industry

06/01/18 01:01PM

It didn't get a lot of attention last year, but the Trump administration came up with an outlandish energy plan to help the coal industry. It was shot down, though it's apparently making something of a comeback.

It's no secret that the coal and nuclear industries are facing some serious challenges, including having more than a few old power plants, which are widely seen as obsolete. Making matters worse, they're facing tough competition from natural gas and renewable power. As a Vox piece explained in October, Energy Secretary Rick Perry came up with a plan that would have effectively bailed out the industries by requiring utility companies to pay coal and nuclear power plants "for all their costs and all the power they produce, whether those plants are needed or not."

Or put another way, the public would create unnatural profits for the coal and nuclear plant owners, even if utility companies had more affordable alternatives, and even if the plants themselves were not economically viable, because the Trump administration would mandate it.

The Republican-led Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected that plan in January. Bloomberg News reports today on the Trump administration's apparent Plan B.

Trump administration officials are making plans to order grid operators to buy electricity from struggling coal and nuclear plants in an effort to extend their life, a move that could represent an unprecedented intervention into U.S. energy markets.

The Energy Department would exercise emergency authority under a pair of federal laws to direct the operators to purchase electricity or electric generation capacity from at-risk facilities, according to a memo obtained by Bloomberg News. The agency also is making plans to establish a "Strategic Electric Generation Reserve" with the aim of promoting the national defense and maximizing domestic energy supplies.

The Bloomberg report emphasized that the plan, which is dated this week and was distributed to officials yesterday, is marked as a "draft," and we don't yet know if Trump has (or will) sign off on the idea.

But it's not too soon to say that this plan is awfully tough to defend.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 6.1.18

06/01/18 12:04PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.

* Republican Party officials in Virginia's 5th congressional district will choose a new nominee tomorrow to replace Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Va.), who announced his retirement this week. Quite a few contenders have already asked to be considered.

* Speaking of Virginia, the White House yesterday condemned a campaign ad from Dan Helmer, a Democratic congressional candidate in the commonwealth. Helmer, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, says in the spot, "After 9/11, the greatest threat to our democracy lived in a cave. Today, he lives in the White House. " Deputy White House Press Secretary Raj Shah said Democratic leaders "must swiftly condemn this abhorrent message."

* Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), trying to get his old job back after a stint leading a pro-Wall Street group, yesterday announced that the state's current lieutenant governor, Michelle Fischbach, will be his running mate.

* Interested in which senators may have national ambitions? Watch to see who does the most out-of-state traveling in support of other candidates. With that in mind, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) will be in Cleveland tomorrow, campaigning in support of Rich Cordray's (D) Ohio gubernatorial campaign.

* In Kansas, Rep. Ron Estes (R), who won a surprisingly competitive special election last year, will face a primary rival ahead of his bid for a full term. The trouble is, Ron Estes' primary rival is also named Ron Estes. As best as I can tell, the two aren't related.

* Speaking of quirky campaign stories out of Kansas, former state Sen. Jim Barnett, one of several Republicans running for governor this year, announced this week that his running mate will be his wife, Rosemary Hansen. And while that's certainly different, I should note that Hansen worked at the State Department for 26 years, with multiple overseas assignments.

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Disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his wife Patti leave their Chicago home for the second day of his sentencing hearing, Dec. 7, 2011. (Photo by John Gress/Reuters)

Why Trump may soon come to Rod Blagojevich's rescue

06/01/18 11:20AM

Shortly after Donald Trump announced he'd pardon right-wing provocateur Dinesh D'Souza, the president signaled he may also soon free former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) from a federal prison. In fact, Trump told reporters on Air Force One that the Illinois governor's crimes -- he tried to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat -- weren't that bad and didn't warrant a 14-year prison sentence.

"I'll tell you another one ... there's another one that I'm thinking about. Rod Blagojevich," Trump said, according to a pool report. "Eighteen (sic) years in jail for being stupid and saying things that every other politician, you know that many other politicians say."

"And if you look at what he said, he said something to the effect like, 'What do I get?' … Stupid thing to say. But he's sort of saying ... he's gonna make a U.S. senator, which is a very big deal," Trump said. "If you read his statement, it was a foolish statement. There was a lot of bravado.... Plenty of other politicians have said a lot worse. He shouldn't have been put in jail."

It wasn't exactly reassuring to see a president who's facing corruption allegations talk so candidly about his indifference toward a politician who was convicted on corruption charges.

But taking a step further, Trump's comments raised a related question: how exactly did Blagojevich get on the president's radar? It's been nearly a decade since the Illinois Democrat's downfall, so what made Trump take an interest in his case.

I initially thought it might have something to with a search for partisan balance -- after pardoning several Republican allies, maybe Trump wanted to feign interest in bipartisanship? -- or perhaps this was the latest example of the president helping the politically connected. After all, Blagojevich wasn't just a successful politician; he also appeared on Trump's reality show.

But in this case, it's likely there's a little more to it.

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In this March 10, 2016 photo, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, gestures as he speaks during an interview in Oklahoma City, Okla. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Pruitt's EPA forges partnerships with climate deniers

06/01/18 10:42AM

About halfway through Barack Obama's presidency, Republicans thought they'd stumbled across an important controversy. The Environmental Protection Agency, evidently, was in routine contact with private non-profit groups that advocate in support of the environment.

Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) were quite aggressive on this in 2013, demanding that the EPA produce detailed records on the agency's relationships with environmental groups.

"It is important for Congress to understand the relationship between EPA and nongovernmental organizations, particularly as it relates to the coordination and influence over public policymaking," the Republicans told the EPA at the time. They added, "[R]eleasing the correspondence between the EPA and these entitles is in the public interest."

It was difficult to take the story seriously -- there was never any evidence to suggest nefarious schemes or plot between the EPA and groups like the Sierra Club -- but the story came to mind overnight after seeing this new report from the Associated Press.

Newly released emails show senior Environmental Protection Agency officials working closely with a conservative group that dismisses climate change to rally like-minded people for public hearings on science and global warming, counter negative news coverage and tout Administrator Scott Pruitt's stewardship of the agency.

John Konkus, EPA's deputy associate administrator for public affairs, repeatedly reached out to senior staffers at the Heartland Institute, according to the emails.

"If you send a list, we will make sure an invitation is sent," Konkus wrote to then-Heartland president Joseph Bast in May 2017, seeking suggestions on scientists and economists the EPA could invite to an annual EPA public hearing on the agency's science standards.

Follow-up emails show Konkus and the Heartland Institute mustering scores of potential invitees known for rejecting scientific warnings of man-made climate-change, including from groups like Plants Need CO2, The Right Climate Stuff, and Junk Science.

The emails were obtained by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Southern Environmental Law Center, which sued to enforce a Freedom of Information request.

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Image: US to move of Embassy to Jerusalem

Trump's ambassador to Israel plays a risky political game

06/01/18 10:12AM

Since his election, Donald Trump has consistently prioritized personal ties over qualifications when choosing officials. One of the first examples of this came to the fore when the president chose his bankruptcy lawyer, David Friedman, to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Israel.

The nomination was not without controversy -- the editorial board of the New York Times described him as a "dangerous choice" -- and nearly every Senate Democrat opposed his confirmation. Senate Republicans, however, ignored the concerns and gave him the job.

A year later, Friedman is helping prove his critics right. The Times of Israel  reported yesterday:

Republicans are undoubtedly better friends of Israel than Democrats are, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said Wednesday, lambasting the Democratic Party for failing to sufficiently mobilize its constituents to support the Jewish state.

"The argument that I hear from some Democrats that Republicans are seizing the pro-Israel mantle is true, to a certain extent. There's no question Republicans support Israel more than Democrats," Friedman told The Times of Israel.

"What the Democrats are not doing is looking at themselves critically and acknowledging the fact that they have not been able to create support within their constituency for Israel at the same levels that the Republicans have," he went on.

The ambassador may not fully appreciate the political risks he's taking with quotes like these. Israel's allies in the United States have long taken steps to ensure that support for the country is bipartisan, and for Friedman to play petty games like this puts that in jeopardy.

Or put another way, perhaps Trump's diplomat in Jerusalem would be better off trying to be diplomatic.

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Launched in 2008, “The Rachel Maddow Show” follows the machinations of policy making in America, from local political activism to international diplomacy. Rachel Maddow looks past the distractions of political theater and stunts and focuses on the legislative proposals and policies that shape American life - as well as the people making and influencing those policies and their ultimate outcome, intended or otherwise.

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